Saturday, May 22, 2010

finally, productive media coverage of bulimia

This piece came out in the NY Times in late April, but I've been too consumed with law school to give it proper blog coverage.

Although the article is powerful, I'm not very crazy about the organization, so I have included parts below that I find particularly strong. I highlight these segments to draw attention to eating disorders as psychiatric illness, not extreme diets of "superficial" or "stupid" [white] girls.

Some background: Melissa, age 19, died of a heart attack after 5 years battling bulimia. Her mother is now making a documentary about eating disorders.
It wasn’t until Melissa’s third round of in-patient treatment...that her father began to fully understand. “I really said, ‘Wow this is almost like heroin addiction,’ ” he says in his film interview. “They need to purge because it makes them feel high and it’s something they need to do. I never appreciated that.”

Once, [her brother] explains, in the middle of a bitterly cold night, he looked out the window and saw Melissa on the curb, going through the garbage. “I went outside and I yelled her name,” he recounts in the interview, his voice breaking. “Just the way she looked back at me — it was so empty, vacant. It was a deer in the headlights, but that doesn’t even explain it.

[Her mother] took her to a pediatric gastroenterologist who said Melissa probably had an eating disorder. “I reacted the way most parents do: ‘That’s not possible,’ ” Ms. Avrin said. “We didn’t go back to him.”

In the early stages, the Avrins did not really see what was going on, in part because Melissa wasn’t visibly underweight, in part because they didn’t want to.

Ms. Avrin wrapped the fridge in locks and chains, hid her purse and made sure never to leave money lying around. “It didn’t have to be good junk food — if she wanted to go on a binge, it could be a dozen eggs,” Ms. Avrin said of Melissa. “Anything that wasn’t nailed down, she would eat.” full article.
In the sneak peak of the documentary (visit the article and press play), Melissa's father says "Even when it was diagnosed as bulimia, I still--I didn't even understand. I didn't accept that it was really anything."

While eating disorders are truly twisted and frightening diseases, I can understand what is going on. I can see the addiction; I can see the cognitive distortions; I can see the self-destructive underpinnings; I can see the need for escapism; I can see the need to drug one self. What I will never be able to wrap my head around is the denial of many parents--or when a parent learns of the eating disorder but doesn't understand, and that parent will not take on a duty to to research and learn more.

If a child had cancer, I am sure most parents would stop at nothing to learn about cutting-edge treatment, the whys and hows, and what-to-do next. Sadly, this is largely not the case with parents of ED victims.

In truth, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. There is no shame in being a victim--and there is certainly no shame in being a survivor. I believe that recovering from an eating disorder is one of the most difficult tasks in life. While other addicts can separate themselves from the substance and substance-abusing company, you cannot separate yourself from food. I truly believe that if you can recover from an eating disorder, you can do anything.

If you have any questions about eating disorders, signs, symptoms, and/or treatment, please email me.


Laura Collins said...


It isn't "denial."

Parents are told eating disorders happen to bad families, wrongly, and so they think it can't happen to them. When it does, they think treatment is all about fixing them.

We are also told that we should not and can not do much. We are told that by the patient, by the media, and usually by the treatment providers.

We are told that our children have chosen this illness and that it is our job to "let go." Our kids tell us to leave them alone and we have no way of knowing this isn't "them" but their illness.

All these things are wrong: eating disorders ARE a real illnesses and we can and must step up as parents to help them. But we need to know that.

You're kicking parents when they're down here - when reassurance and permission to step up are far more helpful. Compassion for the patient's family is a way of showing compassion for the patient as well!

Vanessa said...

I realize that some parents are told [incorrectly] that they cannot help--I am referring to parents who do not try.

Laura Collins said...

I believe most don't try because they've been told not to or don't know where to start. I didn't have a clue and at first I believed I wasn't supposed to do anything - and it was horribly isolating and frightening. None of this is in the baby books. I believe most parents would try everything in their power if given information and guidance.